Anode Celebrates 25 years of High-Tech Storytelling

BY Jeff Peden

Mark Magnuson, founder of Anode Inc., started digital media studio in 1991

Like many who’ve endured the corporate rollercoaster ride, the shock of unemployment launched Mark Magnuson, president of Anode, into entrepreneurism. In the process – almost by accident – Anode was born; and we’re still going strong after 25 years in business.

Mark moved to Nashville in 1983 from western New York to work for Digital Image, the first computer graphic design firm in the state of Tennessee. After eight years, as business declined, he left Digital Image and decided to try his hand as a freelancer. Mark consulted with Peabody College at Vanderbilt University on creating graphic interface to help children with learning disabilities. When the projects grew and more clients came calling, he started his own business: New Media Directions, which was located in an office on Broadway where Bridgestone Arena now sits.

Anode started in 1991 doing advanced computer graphics and visual interface design before Internet, email and DVDs and more importantly, before anyone else.

“We marketed ourselves as three studios: Anode Interactive, 321 Film & Video, and Stratus Design Communication, which was our meeting production and presentation business,” Mark said, adding that Bridgestone, Vanderbilt University and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum were big clients from early on. “For a small company, we worked on some amazing projects that helped companies use technology in ways they might never have thought of.”

However, technology was always secondary to telling a client’s story.
Using his background in theater, Mark developed unique ways of dramatizing the mundane. Once he commissioned a talented friend who is a composer from Austria to write a symphonic tribute for Firestone’s 100th anniversary as a brand.

When Vanderbilt University was fundraising for its Shape The Future campaign, Mark helped craft a multi-media presentation that brought audiences to tears—and prompted them to open their checkbooks.

“We created a series of day-in-the-life videos of students, the brightest of the bright, which were very touching. We would show the video at a fundraising dinner, and at the end the student would appear on one side of the stage and on the other side, often for the first time, they would meet the donor family. It was very emotional and very powerful,” he said.

Anode grew along side Nashville and crept down Broadway into different spaces that would accommodate a larger staff. In 2010, Anode moved to its current location in East Nashville—a converted diesel engine repair shop that now houses 20 employees who continue to push the boundaries of digital media.

“The business climate in Nashville has been amazing,” Mark said. “But we have to be careful not to take for granted that we’ll always have these opportunities. Sometimes you need a dose of reality to make sure you stay relevant and competitive.”

Taking a cue from one of his heroes, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark always keeps an eye on both the form and function of Anode’s work.

“I learned from Wright how you can move through time and space and be affected in profound ways. I look at every project as a chance to create our own version of ‘Fallingwater’—work that fully envelopes you and uses technology in imaginative ways,” Mark added.

As Anode commemorates 25 years in business, the trailblazing continues. The Anode team is already incorporating futuristic virtual reality into the studio’s cadre of solutions and, with it, a whole new way of experiencing stories.

Q&A with Mark:

What made Anode different from other digital media agencies?

What really set us apart was the fact that we didn’t just do one thing. That’s still true of our company today and I think it’s why we’re still here. Because we’ve always done a lot of different things, it’s really been difficult to say ‘this other group does exactly what we do.’ There really isn’t anybody in Nashville like us.

What’s your approach to the business?

I’ve always operated this company as a studio, never as an agency. I’ve never had an agency mentality. So as a studio it’s more about a creative team of people who are posed with a problem to solve and they do it, always conscious of ways to integrate digital media into the fabric of the story.

Any professional regrets?

 None. I’m so appreciative of the support we receive from our clients, who trust us that we are working on behalf of their best interests. I’m also proud of the talent that has flowed through our company for the past quarter century. Many former teammates come up to me and tell me how much they learned when they were at Anode. Many have achieved much greater success, and that makes me feel good.

Where did the name Anode come from?

 Anode was actually the name of a rave party business run by Chris Lee, our Vice President of Technology and the second person I hired who has been with us from the beginning. It comes from the Greek word anodos, which means ‘a way up’ or ‘positive, uplifting.’ That’s why there’s a plus sign in the logo. Chris has always been the guy who looks for new ways to capitalize on technology. He has been pioneering user interface design and navigational strategies long before anyone. Anode is as much Chris Lee as it is me, maybe more so.

What’s one of the favorite projects you’ve worked on?

Colonial Williamsburg is probably one of my favorite projects. We overhauled the visitors center with digital signage. They had 18 ticket windows and in the summer time there were long lines waiting to purchase tickets or make reservations for dinner or lodging. The ticket taker had to spend valuable time with each visitor explaining options. We helped streamline the process by showing visitors, via digital signage, what type of options are available while they were waiting in line. This was 16 years ago, before digital screens were ubiquitous. We also redesigned their visitor website and produced some experiential videos to set the tone for visitors about to enter the historic area. It truly was pioneering work in many mediums.

What’s been your secret for success?

It comes down to three core principles: Be world-class, be there for our clients and each other, and be true to our word.

What’s next for Anode?

Virtual reality. I truly believe our approach to creative story telling is the best in town. The next step is applying that to the world of virtual reality and creating new experiences for our clients and their audiences. We’re looking forward to launching some new applications that are very exciting!

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